Uninspired acting, writing kill 'Universal Solider'


July 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Universal Soldier" should have been called "Zombies on Parade."

4 And I'm talking about the actors, not the story!

It features those two renowned Thespians Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. They appear against a black backdrop on stage and read selections from Sophocles' "Antigone" for three hours.

No, they don't. They appear in Desert Storm camouflage and machine-gun everything that moves. When they run out of bullets they start karate-kicking. Just to make things interesting, they're already dead.

The plot is cobbled together from bits and pieces of "Terminator," "RoboCop," "Re-Animator" and even "Frankenstein." Our two heroes are soldiers from Vietnam who were killed one hot, wet day in a village. Their bodies were retrieved by a mysterious Green Beret officer and, 30 years later, the men reappear as part of a top-secret special operations force.

The movie is irritatingly vague on technical details, but it seems to imply that the corpses have been brought to life, augmented with strength enhancers, become computer-driven and turned into a Delta Force to end all Delta Forces. They're better than Navy SEALs; they're Army souls. They don't fear death because it is conceptually irrelevant. In the movie's best action sequence, this unit is deployed against terrorists who hold 50 hostages and the Hoover Dam. With silenced pistols and the utter unflappability of those in the post-life environment, they dispose of the bad guys like kids disposing of french fries.

The further wrinkle is that Van Damme and Lundgren died killing each other: Lundgren was a psychopath who freaked into a massacre artist, and Van Damme was the good guy trying to stop him. For some reason, the movie begins on the day that both men remember (simultaneously, no less) who they were and decide to take up where they resumed.

From that point on, it's the movie, not the stars, which is dead. It abandons the zombie commando theme entirely and simply becomes an extended and ludicrous one-on-one contest played across the deserts of Nevada. A lot of things blow up.

This might have worked if either young man was able to bring some deadpan charm to his role, but even the usually peppy Van Damme, in his first A-budget movie, is surprisingly inert. As for Lundgren, as an actor he's an imposing piece of sculpture. He looks as if he were carved from beef suet. Rodin should do him: He could call it "The Unthinker."

In all, the movie also misses in the cheap thrill and guilty pleasure department because director Roland Emerich doesn't move his toy soldiers or blow up his automobiles with much energy or distinction. In fact, the movie's so lame, it could give the dead a bad name. I'm surprised they're not picketing.

'Universal Soldier'

Starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

Directed by Roland Emerich.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.

... **

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